Policymakers, election officials, members of the public, and election experts from both sides of the aisle have increasingly called on the federal government to support state and local election administration in recent years. State and local governments set most election policy, procedure, and law, but the U.S. Constitution affords the federal government an important role in crafting election policy. To date, federal involvement in elections has been limited and distributed across a complex network of agencies, committees, bureaus, departments, and institutes.
This explainer identifies the primary entities from each branch of the federal government with a role in elections and their overlap and inter-agency collaboration to equip election stakeholders to better use existing resources and advocate for needed improvements.
Figure 1: The U.S. Federal Elections Landscape
In Figure 1 above, click on a circle to learn how elections are connected to each agency. Note that this explainer covers the primary agencies involved in elections but is not exhaustive.
BPC will continue to explore interagency collaboration to reimagine a more efficient federal election deployment. We plan to release an additional explainer on this topic in the fall of 2023.
The Executive Branch
Figure 2: Executive Branch
As is common practice, throughout this explainer the term “executive branch” includes agencies led by presidential appointees, such as the Department of Defense, and independent agencies with no ties to the president, such as the Election Assistance Commission.
The two agencies with the most name recognition among state and local election officials are the Election Assistance Commission, the only agency solely devoted to election administration, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure. The Federal Election Commission’s name implies a big role in election administration, but in fact it only has responsibility for federal campaign finance. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) transferred all the FEC’s election administration responsibilities to the EAC.
Noted in the descriptions of each agency are some of the most common federal inter-agency collaborations. EAC, CISA, and Department of Justice (DOJ) have all improved coordination between federal agencies in different ways. EAC’s four advisory boards incorporate members from other government agencies, nonprofits, associations, and election officials; CISA has championed both public and private sector collaborative councils; and DOJ’s task force on elections strives to bridge work between law enforcement, legal authorities, and election officials.
Agencies with Statutorily Defined Roles in Elections
The following agencies all have a statutorily defined role in election administration, campaign finance, redistricting, or voting rights.
Election Assistance Commission: Established in 2002 by HAVA, the Election Assistance Commission strives to safeguard elections and support voters’ access to the ballot. The EAC does this by disseminating best practices to election officials, distributing federal funding for elections, approving voluntary voting system guidelines, certifying voting systems, and gathering and sharing data about federal elections at the local level. Congress appropriates funding for both EAC operations and for the EAC to distribute to state election offices. Four advisory boards composed of experts from the field and representatives of various government agencies inform the direction of the EAC and help the commission complete its mission.
- Standards Board: HAVA designates a 110-member Standards Board to assist EAC in carrying out its mandates under the law. The board is composed of 55 state election officials, selected by their respective chief state election official, and 55 local election officials, selected through a process supervised by the chief state election official.
- Board of Advisors: This 35-member board is composed of representatives from election official associations, non-profits, and government entities. The federal agencies with representatives on EAC’s board of advisors include DOJ, the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), and Congress.
- Technical Guidelines Development Committee : TGDC assists EAC in developing the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines. The chairperson of the TGDC is the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The 14 other members of TGDC are appointed jointly by EAC and the director of NIST.
- Local Leadership Council : Established in 2021, the Council is composed of two election official leaders from each state. This council provides recommendations and direct feedback to the EAC on a range of election administration topics including voter registration, voter list maintenance, ballot administration (programming, printing, and logistics), processing, and testing of ballots, and certification of results. Unlike the other three advisory boards, the LLC is not created by HAVA and therefore has no statutory responsibility.
- Federal Election Commission: The Federal Election Commission oversees the implementation and enforcement of federal campaign finance laws. It does not play a role in election administration.
- United States Postal Service : USPS transmits election mail, informs local and state election officials about mail procedures, operational standards, and recommended best practices for utilizing the mail for elections. USPS also conducts an annual review of performance and preparation to deliver election mail.
- United States Access Board: USAB coordinates information regarding voting access for people with disabilities. They are included in EAC’s Board of Advisors and Technical Guidelines Development Committee.
General Services Administration: GSA touches many aspects of the U.S. government through building maintenance, acquisition, and compiling of best practices.
- Office of Evaluation Sciences: Housed within the GSA, this office oversees vote.gov, a U.S. government website that directs Americans to registration rules for their own states. In addition to partnering with the EAC, vote.gov collaborates openly with nonpartisan, third party organizations as well as with state and local election officials.
Agencies Led by Presidential Appointees
Department of Commerce: Through its 13 bureaus, Commerce strives to create the conditions for economic growth and opportunity for all communities. Two bureaus, the Census Bureau and NIST perform important functions that support agencies that have a more direct role in election administration.
- The Census Bureau: The Census Bureau is best known for its core function: determining the number of people living the U.S. every ten years. This population data is used to determine how many House and Electoral College representatives each state gets. Highly detailed data is used to draw election districts, ranging from the U.S. House to local elected commissions. The Census Bureau also conducts post-election surveys about voter registration and participation, conducts annual population and housing unit estimates, and collects language data through the American Community Survey as part of their oversight of Section 203 language determinations under the Voting Rights Act.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology: The NIST Voting Program performs technical research to support the development of standards and guidelines for current and future voting systems, as prescribed in 2002 by HAVA. The Institute also advises the EAC’s voluntary voting system guidelines and consults with DOD’s FVAP on topics such as cybersecurity and electronic ballot transmission. The NIST director chairs the EAC’s Technical Guidelines Development Committee.
Department of Defense (DOD): DOD ensures that military personnel and overseas citizens can vote, typically by mail. Election-related mail to military personnel is handled by either USPS or DOD’s Military Postal Service Agency. DOD entities also counter foreign threats to U.S. elections. For example, in 2022 the National Guard provided election cybersecurity support to several states.
- Military Postal Service Agency: MPSA processes, transports, and distributes mail to military personnel, including election-related mail.
- Federal Voting Assistance Program: FVAP works to ensure that military and civilian overseas voters and their families have the tools and resources to successfully vote. FVAP assists voters through partnerships with the military services, Departments of State and Justice, and election officials from every state and U.S. territory.
Department of Homeland Security: DHS protects the nation from an array of threats, including foreign and domestic threats to elections infrastructure.
Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency: The President’s Management Agenda established CISA in 2018 within the Department of Homeland Security. CISA focuses on both cyber and physical security to U.S. election infrastructure. The agency provides risk mitigation guidance to state and local election offices, cyber security and physical security evaluations, conducts tabletop exercises to predict future risks, provides resources and training to election officials, and has overseen the DotGov program (an initiative to move all government websites to the .gov domain) since 2021. They also collaborate with various federal departments and agencies, state and local government, election officials, and associations of election officials. Notably, CISA partners with the intelligence community, the DOJ, the EAC, NIST, and the DOD.
- CISA facilitates coordination across government and industry groups by hosting two cross-sector councils: the Government Coordinating Council and the Sector Coordinating Council.
- CISA also funds the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center, a free membership organization for all state, local, tribal, and territorial government organizations that support U.S. election officials.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency : FEMA oversees the Homeland Security Grant Program, which required election security spending in 2023.
- Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency: The President’s Management Agenda established CISA in 2018 within the Department of Homeland Security. CISA focuses on both cyber and physical security to U.S. election infrastructure. The agency provides risk mitigation guidance to state and local election offices, cyber security and physical security evaluations, conducts tabletop exercises to predict future risks, provides resources and training to election officials, and has overseen the DotGov program (an initiative to move all government websites to the .gov domain) since 2021. They also collaborate with various federal departments and agencies, state and local government, election officials, and associations of election officials. Notably, CISA partners with the intelligence community, the DOJ, the EAC, NIST, and the DOD.
Department of Justice: The DOJ enforces federal civil and criminal voting rights laws. The Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, the Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation each play a role in detecting, investigating, and pursuing violations of federal civil and criminal laws related to election-related crimes. In 2021, the DOJ launched an Election Threats Task Force composed of individuals from its Criminal, Civil Rights, and National Security Divisions, the FBI, and key interagency partners, such as the Department of Homeland Security. The task force strives to address the rise in threats against election workers, administrators, officials, and others associated with the electoral process. DOJ officials from the Office of Public Integrity and the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division are members of the EAC Board of Advisors.
- Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division: The Voting Section enforces federal voting rights laws and statutes, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act.
- Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division: The Election Crimes Branch, within the Public Integrity Section, oversees election crimes, such as voter fraud and campaign finance crimes, and is designed to ensure uniformity, impartiality, and effectiveness.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation: The FBI has an election crimes division, intended to investigate federal election crimes in all US states and territories. Election crime coordinators in every state investigate federal election crimes including campaign finance, civil rights violations, voter/ballot fraud, and threats against election officials.
- Office of Justice Programs: The Bureau of Justice Assistance administers the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, which can be used “to deter, detect, and protect against threats of violence against election workers, administrators, officials, and others associated with the electoral process.”
- Department of State (DOS): DOS tracks and monitors elections in other democratic countries and supports overseas citizens UOCAVA voting. They also invite and screen overseas election observers to observe U.S. elections.
A collection of U.S. intelligence agencies assess foreign and domestic efforts to influence U.S. campaigns and elections. Sometimes working in collaboration, these agencies support elections through overseas and domestic intelligence collection. Included among this network are the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), National Security Agency (NSA), Cyber Command, the National Guard Bureau (NGB), the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Security Council (NSC).
Agencies without Statutorily Defined Roles in Elections
The following agencies have a less clearly defined role in election administration, campaign finance, redistricting, or voting rights. Each agency has a history of involvement in elections, but they may not be currently involved or may have scaled back involvement.
- United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR): This commission conducts research on voting and political participation. USCCR also conducts meetings and briefings on voting rights and voting access in various states. They have representatives on the EAC’s Board of Advisors.
- National Archives and Records Administration: The National Archives promote access to voting, assesses foreign and domestic efforts to influence U.S. campaigns and elections, and keeps records of the history of voting rights and federal election legislation in the U.S. Before Congress certifies the electoral college vote, the National Archives reviews the Certificates of Ascertainment and Vote. The National Archives also makes the physical Certificates available for public inspection for one year following the election.
- Office of Personnel Management (OPM): As the chief human resources agency for the federal government, OPM deploys federal election observers in specific cases in consultation with the DOJ. They also maintain security clearance applications for the entire federal government, including positions requiring security clearances at other federal agencies involved in elections.
Agencies Led by Presidential Appointees
Department of Health & Human Services (HHS): HHS works to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans. They were responsible for administering HAVA funding for disability access to polls during the first round of HAVA funding in 2002. Today, they help enforce aspects of the American Disabilities Act that pertain to election accessibility.
The Judicial Branch
Figure 3: Judicial Branch
The federal judicial branch does not usually play a policymaking or implementation role in election administration in the U.S.; however, federal courts have increasingly been called upon to adjudicate election disputes. Regarding redistricting, federal courts can draw districts that election officials must implement. In federal election court cases, judicial interpretation of constitutional questions shapes the policy options available to Congress.
The Voting Rights Act permits federal courts to order the presence of federal election observers to protect against voting rights violations.
The Legislative Branch
Figure 4: Legislative Branch
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the right to pass laws that regulate how states conduct federal elections, though Congress has done so sparingly. The Constitution establishes the basic parameters of federal elections, such as specifying how House seats are apportioned among the states based on the census. Major federal statutes that govern federal elections include the Voting Rights Act, the Federal Election Campaign Act, National Voter Registration Act, Help America Vote Act, Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act.
Committees in both the Senate and the House holds hearings and recommend federal election legislation to Congress. The following Congressional committees have a history of involvement in federal elections; the committees most involved in election administration are the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the House Administration Committee.
- Appropriations allocates funds to federal agencies for elections.
- Armed Services oversees military absentee voting and cybersecurity.
- Ethics administers chamber rules and oversees ethics of campaigns and elections.
- Foreign Relations combats foreign interference in U.S. elections.
- Homeland Security & Government Affairs is involved in election security, government coordination, and Census Bureau oversight.
- Intelligence combats foreign interference in U.S. elections.
- Judiciary handles constitutional issues and voting rights enforcement.
- Rules & Administration oversees federal elections, administers chamber rules, oversees the EAC and the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
House of Representatives Committees:
- Administration oversees federal elections, administers chamber rules, oversees the EAC and FEC, along with the Congressional Election Observation Program, which deploys volunteer House staff to observe election sites across the country.
- Appropriations allocates funds to federal agencies designated for elections.
- Armed Services oversees military absentee voting and cybersecurity.
- Ethics administers chamber rules related to campaigns and elections.
- Foreign Affairs combats foreign interference in U.S. elections.
- Homeland Security is involved in election security and government coordination.
- Intelligence combats foreign interference in U.S. elections.
- Judiciary handles constitutional issues, voting rights enforcement, and presidential succession.
- Oversight and Accountability manages governmental coordination, oversees the Census bureau, and has legislative jurisdiction over the postal service.
- Science, Space, and Technology committee has historically been involved in election cybersecurity.
- Ways and Means is responsible for presidential public financing.
Research for the Legislative Branch
Two organizations conduct research and survey work to educate legislators to the circumstances of state and local election offices across the country.
- Congressional Research Service: CRS is located within the Library of Congress, and serves as shared staff exclusively to congressional committees and Members of Congress. CRS experts conduct research on an array of legislative issues, provide support throughout the bill drafting process, and oversee enacted laws and various agency activities. CRS has over 1,000 reports related to election administration and campaigns alone.
- Government Accountability Office: GAO provides Congress, the heads of executive agencies, and the public with timely, fact-based, non-partisan information that can be used to improve government and save taxpayers billions of dollars. GAO’s Elections and Campaign Finance topic area contains many reports on the status of government agencies that engage with U.S. elections.
The role of the federal government in elections has historically been hotly contested by members of Congress, government and election officials, and the public. Despite all the agencies, coordination, and information sharing occurring at the federal level, there are no federal standards for how elections are administered, nor is there consensus that federal standards are necessary.
Many of the agencies in this explainer were identified through the Congressional Research Service’s 2018 report Federal Role in U.S. Campaigns and Elections: An Overview. Others were identified during three working groups on the role of federal agencies in elections, convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project in March 2023, consisting of representatives from federal agencies, state and local election offices, other nonprofit elections groups, academic researchers, and philanthropic organizations.
Going forward, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Elections Project will release a report describing different options for federal involvement in elections. This report will explore how federal involvement in elections has historically been decided and will describe some of the nuances and tradeoffs of different levels of federal involvement. By reimagining the federal role in elections, we can begin to optimize increased efficiency and improved coordination.
A special thank you to the following individuals who reviewed this document: Charles Stewart, MIT; Gideon Cohn-Postar, Issue One; Jess Lieberman, American Academy of Arts & Sciences; Derek Tisler, Brennan Center for Justice; Liz Howard, Brennan Center for Justice; Jennifer Morrell, The Elections Group; Avery Davis-Roberts, The Carter Center.
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